06 December 2009

Crying Over Nothing

Climategate, the recent row over the hacked emails of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, was an early Christmas gift to climate change sceptics. Immediately upon the release of the emails, sceptics pounced upon the details and cried foul over bias and conspiracy to suppress data that denies climate change.

Now, for someone outside the sphere of scientific research, he or she might think that it is a very merry cooperation and everyone providing a polite slice of their knowledge and research in an orderly fashion. Yet this is quite far from the truth, as I myself have witnessed.

Research is often messy. Too many a times researchers use published data and methods in their own studies without waiting for verification from other sources. Of course, publications being peer-reviewed, most of the time they are alright, but occasionally they may be overthrown by other researchers who pointed out flaws in reasoning or experimental methods. This is part and parcel of research, and it's pretty much accepted so long as the mistake is unintentional. Once in a while, there will be major upheavals -- such as the fabrication of cloning data by Hwang Woo-Suk -- which may upset many studies that are based on the original publication.

Furthermore, researchers may have bias. They may speak out strongly against certain approaches which does not quite conform with their ideas. Personally, I've encountered this problem before. Some may be hostile, some may be polite; but a healthy research environment is able to tolerate conflicting viewpoints under the same roof. And an ideal researcher should be one that may disagree with a direction of research, but still allow it to go ahead.

Such is the nature of research. And thus those personal emails naturally would contain information and communications that do not appear clean to a regular reader. It would take someone in the research environment to really sieve out real misdemeanour from personal disagreements. In fact, other than the initial outcry over words that suggested at fabrication, there is no concrete evidence of such actions. And the fact that sceptics cannot find anything definite after so long perhaps suggested that there is really none.

If you still need an expert report on the situation, the top scientific journal Nature has found no conspiracy in the leaked emails. In fact, with regards to the suppression of the publication, the editorial reports:

In one of the more controversial exchanges, UEA scientists sharply criticized the quality of two papers that question the uniqueness of recent global warming (S. McIntyre and R. McKitrick Energy Environ. 14, 751–771; 2003 and W. Soon and S. Baliunas Clim. Res. 23, 89–110; 2003) and vowed to keep at least the first paper out of the upcoming Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Whatever the e-mail authors may have said to one another in (supposed) privacy, however, what matters is how they acted. And the fact is that, in the end, neither they nor the IPCC suppressed anything: when the assessment report was published in 2007 it referenced and discussed both papers.

And I think the most illuminating statement is "whatever the e-mail authors may have said to one another in (supposed) privacy, however, what matters is how they acted." It squares very well with what I've said above: that the research process is messy, and researchers have personal preferences; but ultimately, when they presented their data to the public, everything is cleaned up in a fair manner.